Monday, August 31, 2009

52 years on, and still Mistrust and Communalism reigns...

This year, I greeted Merdeka amidst deep feelings of disquiet and uneasy anguish. It has become a recurrent theme of my melancholy.

31st August has come around again -- Hari Kemerdekaan, Independence Day.

Before I go on, I want to state that I am not politically-affiliated and do not belong to any political party. I consider myself a liberal Malaysian, and have always been advocating a kindlier, more sensible, more cohesive, more efficient and less corrupt Malaysia. I am passionately inclined to supporting a radical yet peaceful change for a better Malaysia.

I begin this way, knowing that in Malaysia these days, everyone is now a potentially vocal commentator with no holds barred to their freedom to express themselves!

Still, I continue to hope that more common sense and reason will prevail. I am an unabashed believer in more constructive if idealistic rational discourse and less rhetoric.

I was born two years before the Malayan liberation, too young to understand the significance of what 'Merdeka' meant. But later, my late father (one who was ever so apolitical) would remind me that it was one of those life-defining moments of epiphany, with the nationwide rousing shouts of pride of "Merdeka, Merdeka, Merdeka!..."

Now 52 years on, this shibboleth appears somewhat hollow, too meaningless, too unfelt. Was it truly freedom to decide our own fate, our own lives, our destinies? Have we really been liberated?

Or has this been replaced with an even more destructive social disintegration, political uncertainty and perhaps a growing sense of hopelessness? I wonder.

But as Malaysians, we seem to have forgotten that we did have some success, as many people around the world would gladly attest. We were among the better, more stable newly independent states, which had progressed with a decent clip of development, fairly good administration, a workable semblance of political freedom and democracy. But perhaps only just, as dictated by the reality of the times, then...

I am not sure if our history could have been much different given the circumstances, the ethnic composition, the political awareness, the communal tensions, the talents and the leaders that we have had. But then again, I am not sure if we had learnt anything at all from our unique history.

To be sure, we will all have our own passionate beliefs that our past leaders had led us down the garden path of corrupt destruction and wasted opportunities. As a whole, this would be a true reflection for many of us.

Many have lamented the fact that the mainstream establishment had been guilty of glossing over the splintering jaggedness of our incompatible perhaps ineradicable differences. Deep-seated communal bigotry and irrational ethno-religious bullheadedness continue to jar our carefully crafted Vision 2020, and the more recent if much maligned facade of 1 Malaysia.

Sadly, these tensions just refuse to go away, only to be stoked incessantly by morally-bankrupt politicians...

We clearly could not all have hoped to be taking the singular path of breakaway Singapore in 1965... Like it or not, Singapore's political reality, resource-poor island status, and their ethnic composition then, made it a particular experience at nation building, which perhaps could only have happened once in a rare while, much like the serendipitous bountiful arrows of earth's evolution, and our magnificent diversity, to paraphrase the late paleo-zoologist Professor Stephen Jay Gould.

With our greater numbers and more diverse peoples, it was unlikely that Malaysia would have achieved that identical status that is Singapore today. Yes, it is true that Singapore's economic strides: GDP growth, living standards and appreciating dollar, appear to have left us quite far behind...

Yet again perhaps, (and with due apologies to my Singaporean friends!) many Malaysians would baulk at that idea of becoming another successful if somewhat soulless and straitjacketed nation, across the Causeway -- that "little red dot", bright and lustrous as it sometimes seems...

But, it is good to imagine what might have been, if we had chosen paths of greater ethnic, religious tolerance and acceptance, 'real' unity and accommodation, greater efficiency, lesser corruptibility, less political manipulation and even less seething if undisguised polarisation.

It is increasingly difficult to be jubilant, enthusiastic, yes, even nationalistically proud when we celebrate our National Day, our independence from our long history of colonial past. 52 years now from whence we were cobbled together, in a mishmash political entity called Persekutuan Tanah Melayu and then later in 1963, Malaysia.

From colonial expediencies where the colonial masters commanded all the "divide and rule" puissance, to deviously subdue local inhabitants, e.g. Malays, Ibans, Kadazans; indenture Indians into planting and then tapping the sprawling rubber plantations, and crudely importing chain gangs of Chinese coolies to mine tin and other minerals, we were expected to arrive at a semblance of an amalgamated whole. Perhaps, this was a tall order, too tall to succeed...

Despite more than half a century of this social experiment and so-called nation-building, it appears that socio-ethno-religious fracture lines have never been truly mended, much less fused. Latterly, this frangible social contract seems to have been sundered further apart with vengeance!

Political meekness and tongue-tied obeisance on the part of the secondary parties within Barisan National, were punished by increasingly loud and resurgent anti-establishment voices, which crescendoed in the March 8 electoral gains by oppositionists.

Yet, instead of greater democratic space and hoped for change, this last year and a half, have been fraught with political uncertainties, ridiculously crude and partisan chicanery, and a rising tempo of communal and religious tensions! Every day seems consumed in politicking and more politicking!

There is great social schism in our rakyat, mounting mistrust, and a seemingly unbridgeable chasm of non-accommodation on both sides. Anything espoused by either side is quickly dismissed as inherently self-serving, misleading, wrong, devious or inept.

Oppositionists have been labeled as disloyal crypto-racists, anti-royalty, and even more viciously anti-Malay, which must be furthest from reality. Unfortunately, events of late have made this feeling even more entrenched: selective prosecution/persecution of oppositionist supporters, peace or anti-ISA demonstrators including candle-light vigil participants; Machiavellian takeover of the Perak state government; custodial deaths and torture (with the latest Teoh Beng Hock's 'falling death' from the 14th floor of the MACC building); perceived and blatantly biased actions and arrogance of our much maligned Police force; widespread misgivings on the impartiality of our judiciary, etc.

In short, to many of the growing throngs of anti-establishment Malaysians, the current government cannot be trusted, period. And all its civic institutions appear rotten to the core... There's widespread anger, indeed even rousing hatred which fuels its own vicious cycle of anarchic anomie.

The rise of the blogosphere and alternative media though the world wide web, has opened up and exposed that untameable genie in the bottle, never again to be contained. While, this ungovernable cyberspace has fostered unimaginable information traffic, and unlocked many secrets, exposes, and countless exchanges for the better, there is another sinister side which has emerged.

This unleashed genie of free expression too is fraught with disturbing inexactitudes, irrational bigotry and unrestrained viciousness of its own. Personally declared but intolerant righteousness have been spewed behind the facade of perceived anonymity of the Internet. Can anyone believe anything at all in the web? Certainly not everything, but the dilemma is knowing which is which.

Belligerent ad hominem attacks have become the preferred mode of communication for greater share of internet audiences. From rambling disorganised blogs/commentaries to incoherently twittering 'haikus', rantings and ravings have replaced civic discourse or rational dialogue.

Rumours and innuendoes have been elevated to become unchallengeable "facts", aggravated by the overzealously self-censoring main stream media, whose alienating voices are diminishingly soft and perceptibly untrustworthy...

There appears to be very little patience for compromise, for sensible meeting of minds... How do we build a republic of virtue, if we cannot at least try to work together and are almost always bogged down in the quagmire of seething hatred and mutually destructive distrust?

Although some may disagree with the middle ground of academic Azly Rahman ( in Dream of a Sincere Merdeka), I think he represents that enlightened Malaysian intellectual who espouses more dialogue no matter how trenchant the tone: "We spend too much time politicising everything and less time educating. If all that energy is used to design a better system of participatory democracy and philanthropy, and to reach out to other ethnic groups to collaborate in solving the issue of poverty, we, as Malaysians, will become a miracle nation."

I think many alter Malaysians are now so intoxicated by their own anger, hatred and righteousness that many are no longer listening, except to their own voices and other like-minded echoes they surround themselves with. We are no longer thinking about how some of these seemingly implacable problems can be resolved. We just want to see instant results, provoke instant reactions, we behave as if the politics of the land is a playground for the brave and loud. But, what about how to run, really run a government of our choice, of virtue?

An online editor has confided apologetically that: "many commentators basically rant and rave at any one who seems to be in authority... I do wonder if there is a place for genuine discourse. But I guess we live in a country where quite a lot is broken."

Conversely, pro-government politicians, administrators (police, judiciary, MACC, civil servants) and supporters are now all increasingly tainted with that huge tar brush as corrupt, venial, mercenary, totally reliant on political patronage, rent-seekers, and ineffective, without exception -- which again cannot be all the incontrovertible truth.

But the innocents are increasingly marginalised and are being pushed to smaller and smaller corners of despair, which may explain their entrenched attitudes towards some sort of subliminal retaliation. Anger and hatred breeds both ways, it is often forgotten...

Worse than that, we appear to be spiralling down that abyss of ever more provocative racist and religious extremism: the latest being that unforgivably brutish "cow head" protest against the building of a Hindu temple in Shah Alam. After initial outrage, this unspeakable bigotry seems to have receded into receiving no more than knuckle-rapping warnings and an inexplicable deafening silence from that raft of usually "legalistic" UMNO leaders.

Yet on the other side, can we not see that some Muslims and Malays fueled by politically-motivated siege behaviour, may have been 'engineered' and have banded together to fight back, to loudly proclaim their growing sense of 'loss', their perceived grievances? Never the twain shall meet, it seems...

Thus, can anyone be faulted for this sense of national despair, of hopelessness, of more of the same or worse?

But this disturbing sense of intellectual anarchy in our newfangled 'democratic' space keeps growing--our politics get murkier and murkier, with widespread and humongous allegations of bribery, corruption, counter charges of corruption; whispered vote buying of millions to reported billions of Ringgit of corporate mismanagement; shameless personal enrichment and rent-seeking cronyistic patronage and handouts; counter claims of inept, uncaring constantly politicking oppositionist state governments!

Every action appears to have been challenged by more reactions. We have now accumulated mountain piles of legal challenges and counter-challenges that appear to be the only by-product of our hard-fought democratic space.

Countless police reports, counter-reports, statutory declarations, counter-declarations, whether true or false, pointless point-scoring judicial challenges/reviews, spiralling defamation suits (100 to 500 million Ringgit! Is any Malaysian really worth that much?), accusations and counter-accusations now dot our political landscape and news, almost on a daily basis!

We are effectively stalling and stumbling at the starting block, as impasse spasms continue to paralyse our development and progress...

We trust no one, we blame and censure everyone, we continue to let our unleashed rage, our gut-instinctual righteousness, and our unyielding partisanship create this overpowering dark cloud atmosphere of gridlock and paralysis!

There appears to be no hope, the divide seems unbridgeable, the Malaysian schism further separates... So there appears to be one law for supporters and another for the others. So frustrating, so provocative, so hate-fulfilling...

A beleaguered government sensing their dismal disarray into possible irrelevance, corrals upon itself a "fight or flight" mentality, its back against the wall. It necessarily wants to fight back, and it does so with a vehemence that should surprise no one!

There appears to be no willingness to compromise, this is one fight to the 'death' so to speak! Winner takes all! But is this necessarily so?

Can we find a middle ground? Or is the only other way, a revolutionary disassembling, discharge or destruction of the other? Must this confrontational stance rise and rise to that unthinkable crescendo of social dehiscence, which can only threaten to destroy all of us, everyone of us, self-proclaimed 'true' Malaysian patriots?

We could tone down our justifiable outrage, our unforgiving tantrums, our frenzied rantings, because this would help make our arguments a tad more tolerable, even if less exciting to read. True dialogue rather than talking heatedly over each others' heads would be far more productive.

We must learn to think aloud and listen to ourselves, especially if we wish to impart and share our strongest views about others. Even if we believe that by doing so, we can hopefully help create a small glimmer of hope, to help bring about 'change' for the better.

This is not to say that we are climbing down from our precarious perch of righteousness or moral might. This is also not my 'apologist stance on behalf of the establishment'. It is a genuine call for more common sense, and less rhetoric, less posturing. Our strength of conviction will be that levelheaded perspicacity and moral persuasion that serve as the hallmark of modern democratic action.

Perhaps, I am naive, but I sense and fear the growing demise of our social respect for each other to the point of contempt and constant belittling of one another. Once we start thinking of those who disagree with us as less than human, we are really stepping down the slippery slope of dangerous no return.

We must therefore, learn to avoid these sparks of deadly rhetoric which can precipitate ethnic-religious tragedies such as has been experienced in the not too distant past, in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

I know we all think we are contributing to this concept of change which we must begin with each and every one person in Malaysia. I believe this too, passionately, but I too must be aware of the prevailing realities and maintain a step-back patience.

Sometimes, the loudest most strident voice is not necessarily that most listened to; some people would be very quick to switch off immediately, and we would not be listened to at all, except from the already converted. The more serious consequences would be the possible repercussions of retaliatory anger, hatred, vengeance...

We can all help to lessen the tenor and the tempo of recriminations and deep-seated anger and try and temper down the growing ill will that is brewing and boiling over in our blogosphere and possibly also in our civil society!

We stand ready to lose and exclude another huge segment of our society, who are our fellow citizens too, albeit on the other side of the fence. Worse, we may be kindling something more unthinkable, more sinister and terrible! I do hope I am wrong and will be proven so!

Let's help reduce the political tension, while continuing to push our agenda with less animosity but with greater moral suasion!

God help us! Have a thoughtful Merdeka!

This article has been published in The Malaysian Insider, 06 September 2009
Also in Malaysian Mirror, 06 September 2009
Appears as a brief letter in malaysiakini Sinister side of the web, 08.09.09